Over the last 60 years the Coast Guard has typically fielded about 45 large patrol cutters, 1000 tons or greater (Is the Fleet Shrinking?) with as many as 36 WMECs. Theoretically we could build an average of 1.5 ships a year and maintain a fleet with an average age of about 15 years with progressive improvements introduced based on experience. This may be something to work toward, but it hasn’t been working that way. The Coast Guard’s current fleet is largely the product of two great spasms of ship building, WWII and one beginning in the 60s, a smaller bump in the 80’s, and long periods when no ships were built.
The last Lake class 255ft WPG/WHEC entered service in 1946. In the 64 years since then, this is the record of Patrol Cutter construction.
- 1947-1963 (17 years) no new construction patrol cutters entered service. The service did acquire ex-Navy destroyer escorts (what would now be called frigates), 311 foot Barnegat Class former seaplane and torpedo boat tenders, 213 foot former submarine rescue vessels, and 205 foot former fleet tugs.
- 1964-1972 (9 years) The 16 Reliance class 210s, built in four different yards, including five by the Coast Guard Yard, entered service 1964-1969. The 12 Hamilton Class 378s, all built at Avondale, entered service 1967-1972. (The original plan was for 36 378s.) (28 ships/9 years=3.11 ships/year)
- 1973-1982 (10 years) no new construction patrol cutters entered service.
- 1983-1990 (8 years) The 13 Bear class 270s entered service between 1983 and 1990. (13 ships/8 years=1.625 ships/yr)
- 1991-2007 (17 years) no new construction patrol cutters entered service.
- 2008 Bertholf entered service
- 2009 no new construction cutters entered service.
- 2010 Waesche entered service.
45 of 64 years, no new construction patrol cutters entered service. All 43 new construction ships (210s, 378s, 270s, NSCs) were delivered in only 19 years. The current rate of construction (two ships in three years) is less than the minimum average long term construction rate (1.5 ships/year).
The program begun in the 60s was a timely effort to replace the ships built in WWII and earlier, unfortunately it was stopped short of completing their replacement.
In 1990 when construction of the 270s stopped, we still had 10 WMECs that dated from WWII: Storis, three 213s, three 205s, and three 180 ft former WLBs. Logically we should have continued building two ships a year to replace these. (In 1991 they were all at least 46 years old.) They would have all been replaced by 1995. Continuing two ships a year, the first 210s could have been replaced in 1996. When replaced, they would have all been at least 32 years old. Continuing two ship a year we could have replaced all the 210s and 378s by 2009. The first replacement for the 270s should have been contracted in 2010 to enter service in 2013.
We had an opportunity to have an orderly replacement program, but we blew it, beginning approximately FY87/88, when we failed to continue building ship, and let our engineering expertise atrophy.